Creating a culture of faith

Many years ago there was a study of the cause of malnutrition in an Asian village beset by famine. One group of children seemed to thrive, however, which prompted the researchers to look for the reasons. They learned that the mothers of these healthy children had found tiny shrimp in the rice paddies and added them to their children’s diet, while the others were not so innovative and thus their children failed to thrive. Is there a lesson here for the Church? Why are some young people committed to their faith while others fall away as soon as they leave the home? 

Christian Smith, the sociologist renowned for observing the religious practices of teen-agers through his groundbreaking work, “The National Study of Youth and Religion,” finally asked the question, “What did the parents of religiously active young adults do right?” His latest research, “A Report on American Catholic Religious Parenting,” reveals that religiously-committed families have certain practices in common that produced the results that no parish effort can ever duplicate. 

The families of religiously-committed youth and young adults all create a home in which the values of the Catholic faith are part of their culture. The motivation to do this was as varied as the families themselves. Some were motivated by dogma, believing that Catholicism was true and right. Others were attracted to the communal life of the parish, while some felt that religion made the family happier. There were those who wished to pass along their ethnic heritage that was wrapped up in Catholic piety, and some were very individualistic, i.e. “My faith is important to me and so I want my kids to have what I found.” Whatever the motivation, they all created a home in which the children knew that faith “worked” and was a priority. 

The million dollar question is, “What exactly do these families do to create a Catholic culture that sticks with their children?” There were several factors in place in every one of these families. The parents created a way of behaving that made sure that the children understood that “being a practicing Catholic is a long-term, worthwhile, and primary life commitment.” The parents play the role of sponsor of the Catholic faith, particularly in a society that no longer fosters faith as a necessary element of successful child-rearing. These parents also are the “gatekeeper” of religious content. It is up to them to determine how much Catholic practice their children receive, i.e. prayer, reading the Bible, receiving Communion. Most important to the transmission of the faith is that the parents embody a manner of being Catholic. The study refers to this as being the “interpreter” of the faith. “If children do not ‘see’ Catholicism in the ‘face’ of their parents, they will never gain sufficient familiarity with it to commit to practicing the faith in the long run.”

The parents were resolute about handing on the faith, which required them to “weave a Catholic world around their children, providing them with a variety of mutually reinforcing religious content.” They identified several practices that these families employed to expose their children to religious content. Teen-age youth were invited to teach Religious Education to younger kids. Some enrolled their children in Catholic schools. They prayed the Rosary as a family, or went on pilgrimages. Some of these families sent their children on foreign mission trips, or brought their kids along while they attended meetings in the parish. Their children were enabled to sing in the choir or were encouraged to participate in youth ministry. These families said grace before meals and prayed with their children at bedtime. They are the families that bring their children to the Triduum each year. These families are an inspiration and the backbone of our parishes. 

The study turned to the other groups of parents whose faith was described as being on “autopilot.” These are the families who think that faith can be attained through osmosis as long as they do the right thing by bringing their children to Religious Education and go to Mass occasionally. Like the committed Catholic families, they are not all the same and have various reasons why they seem to fail to transmit the faith. The largest group, unfortunately, are those that are nominally Catholic and are indifferent about transmitting the faith. 

Those are the greatest challenge to the Church. There is some hope for other families whose parents are just not totally convinced of their own faith. “They expose their children to Catholicism but retreat from modelling it themselves.” They often mask their uncertainty by saying that they will leave it up to their children to make their own decision about the faith when they’re older. Some have a deep, individual faith that is newly-minted, and thus feel that it is too late for them to pass it along to their children. These families have hope and might be a good starting place for a parish. Sometimes evangelization is just a matter of encouraging families to disengage autopilot and take back control of their children’s faith. 

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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